Fake solar panels and streetlight camouflage — Zimbabweans hiding Starlinks to fool police

Zimbabweans desperate for affordable uncapped Internet are disguising Starlink dishes as other general items found in public to avoid police detecting them.

Tech Zim has reported that several Starlink users in the country are camouflaging the service’s dishes as solar panels or hiding them in the back of polelights in reaction to raids and confiscation of Starlink equipment by law enforcement officials.

One anonymous person who modified the Gen 2 Starlink kit on behalf of customers told the publication that their work had proven very popular.

“We crack it open and modify it so that it runs on 12 volt DC. The unit is then able to fit inside either a solar panel or a street light,” they explained.

“Converting it in this way also enables us to do away with the cable and the Starlink router.”

The image below shows what a kit modified into a “solar panel” looks like.

Starlink kit modified with fake solar panel cover

These efforts come after Zimbabwean telecoms regulator, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) announced it was cracking down on Starlink use in the country earlier this year.

According to a report from the government-owned website H-Metro, POTRAZ was conducting nationwide raids to arrest people distributing, advertising, or using Starlink equipment.

A POTRAZ spokesperson told H-Metro that Starlink was not yet approved in Zimbabwe and was “unlicensed telecommunication”.

“The service should wait for permission; the telecommunications process requires that they not interfere with other services,” they said. “Their clearance is critical to ensuring that frequencies do not conflict with one another.”

The spokesperson added that Starlink was still in the process of applying for a licence.

According to POTRAZ, two people had already been arrested in Bulawayo and Vic Falls by the time of its warning in January 2024.

A Chinese-owned mining company was also slapped with a $700 (R13,040) fine for using Starlink equipment in the country.

A photo published on X in late 2023 also showed a Starlink dish fitted on top of a Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation van.

Multiple reports on data prices show Zimbabwe has among the world’s worst rates for fixed and mobile services.

Cable.co.uk’s most recent analysis of mobile data prices in 237 countries showed that Zimbabweans had to pay $43.75 (R814.41) per GB of mobile data between June and September 2023.

That was 24 times higher than the average price paid per GB in South Africa.

Virtual private network Surfshark’s analysis of fixed Internet prices in its Digital Quality of Life Index also ranked Zimbabwe as the most expensive.

Its comparison focused specifically on affordability for people living in each of the 121 countries it analysed.

Surf Shark found that Zimbabweans have to work over 72 hours to afford a monthly subscription to an uncapped fixed broadband data service, compared with 1 hour and 43 minutes of labour in South Africa.

Starlink is available in two of Zimbabwe’s neighbouring countries — Mozambique and Zambia.

Regional roaming packages that work in Zimbabwe cost either R1,287 or R756 per month when taking up a service through one of these countries.

According to Zimpricecheck, the price of an entry-level uncapped home fibre service in Zimbabwe on Liquid’s network is $90.33. (R1,683) per month, while an uncapped fixed-LTE service costs a monthly $78.01 (R1,453).

Those in deep rual areas who can only use satellite services must pay US$537.33 (R10,008) per month for a VSAT package.

Several specialist importers operating in Sub-Saharan Africa ship Starlink kits to customers in the country.

However, Zimpricecheck said that border officials have to be bribed around $450–$500 to “look the other way”, pushing the effective prices of the kits up substantially.

Zimbabwe has something South Africa does not — an estimated Starlink rollout date

Despite these issues, Starlink seems to be more hopeful about approval in Zimbabwe than in South Africa.

At the time of publication, its latest coverage map shows official rollout in Zimbabwe is estimated to happen in the third quarter of 2024, while South Africa’s status has been “unknown” for several years.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has also warned South African households and businesses that it deems the use of Starlink to be illegal.

Icasa said that providing broadcasting and electronic communications services without the necessary service and radio frequency spectrum licences was a direct contravention of the Electronic Communications Act.

It warned anyone who provided a service without a licence or without registering as required was guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to R5,000,000 or 10% of annual turnover — whichever is greater.

This would be levied for every day or part thereof during which the offence continued.

Icasa also warned users that using radio networking equipment that was not type-approved was unlawful.

It encouraged the public to avoid buying or operating equipment like Starlink’s, which it maintains has not been properly licensed or type-approved.

However, there have been no publicly reported incidents of South African law enforcement officials confiscating the equipment nor of Icasa punishing providers with fines.

That said, it has sent one company a cease-and-desist letter to stop selling the kits and roaming service.

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Fake solar panels and streetlight camouflage — Zimbabweans hiding Starlinks to fool police